FAYETTEVILLE - About every team except those blown out exit the NCAA Tournament devastated by a referee’s call that the losing team and, especially its fans, deems controversial.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are no exception exiting the South Regional in Sunday’s 72-65 to the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in Greenville, S.C.
Nor are the ninth-seeded Seton Hall Pirates that eighth-seeded Arkansas eliminated 77-71 in Friday’s first round in Greenville.
Such is the finality of the one-and-done NCAA Tournament magnifying every close call of every close game.
So the Pirates felt robbed. Their Desi Rodriguez, needing to foul with Arkansas leading, 72-71 with 18 seconds left and the shot clock off, was deemed only to be going for Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford rather than going for the ball when his ruled flagrant foul pushed and tripped Barford and sent the Arkansas guard sprawling.
Because it was deemed a flagrant foul and not a common foul, Arkansas retained possession after Barford sank both free fouls.
So with 17 seconds left the Pirates fouled Daryl Macon. Macon sank 1 of 2 and the game was out of Seton Hall’s reach.
The postgame debate raged among TV’s talking heads whether it was a common foul or intentional foul.
Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard handled it well postgame which Arkansas coach Mike Anderson also did Sunday on the losing side.
“ I can’t really complain about whether I agree or not. I’m always going to disagree with it. That’s what coaches do,” Willard said. “They reffed a good game tonight. We were up one with the ball with 1:20 left. We turn it over. We miss a layup. So we never should have put ourselves in that situation.”
Fast forward to Sunday. The Razorbacks rallied from down 17 during the first half to lead the Tar Heels, 65-60 with 3:31 left in the game.
North Carolina was up 66-65 when Tar Heels point Joel Berry, with the shot-clock. waning bowled over Arkansas freshman forward Adrio Bailey planted to take a charge. The contact drew no whistle while Berry proceeded to throw up a prayer, which 6-10 teammate Kennedy Meeks answered by tipping it in.
A devastating turn of events for Arkansas, that potential charging foul against Berry become a Carolina fan-igniting spectacular Tar Heels tip-in.
“ I thought he ran over one of our guys,” Anderson said during Sunday’s postgame “If he didn’t, he traveled. But that wasn’t the difference in the game. I just thought we had some bad turnovers at the wrong time or we didn’t get a good shot.”
Arkansas didn’t score during the half’s last 3:30 and North Carolina scored 12 during the game’s final 2:56.
Game over. The Tar Heels played great defense down the stretch and the Hogs, with guards Barford, Macon and Anton Beard all cramping during the second half, ran out of gas and out of offensive sync.
“They’re a great team,” Arkansas senior guard Manny Watkins said. “And their backs were against the wall. They made the plays to win the game. They’re a 1 seed. They showed it. But I just think it was we didn’t execute. We had the game. We just didn’t make the right plays down the stretch and that’s on us.”
It was, Anderson said, but under tough circumstances nearly upsetting a Tar Heels team favored to stomp Arkansas.
“You had something in your hand and you let it get away,” Anderson said. “But I thought these guys gave me everything they had.”
What the Hogs had made North Carolina coach Roy Williams feel like he somehow had just won a poker pot down to his last chip.
“We were in the most difficult fight we have had all year long,” Williams told the TNT audience postgame. “We were really lucky. We were really lucky.”
So were Arkansas fans to have a team like this, all but given up for dead back in a Jan. 28 to Feb. 7 when other than beating Alabama at Walton the Hogs lost, 99-71 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge game at Oklahoma State and in the SEC lost at last-place Missouri and lost by 13 at Walton to a Vanderbilt they previously nipped by one int Nashville.
From that they rose to finish 26-10, other than the 27-9 of Anderson’s 2014-2015 Razorbacks the best Arkansas record since the 32-7 of Nolan Richardson’s 1995 national runner-up.
“These guys here, they are a special group,” Anderson said.
So special that with Duke falling to South Carolina, and Virginia vanquished by Florida, they almost completed a SEC trifecta of sending the ACC’s elite Tobacco Row up in smoke.